The sexual-abuse crisis: unfinished business.

This morning, Thomas Reese, SJ, delivered a keynote address at the conference Clergy Abuse: Ten Years Later, sponsored by Santa Clara University. In his talk, Reese described the "unfinished work in responding to the sexual-abuse crisis." Some highlights (you can read the whole talk at the bottom of this post):

First, I think the churchand by church I mean both the clergy and the people of Godneeds to re-envision its attitude toward the survivors of sexual abuse. In Latin America, liberation theologians developed the concept of the preferential option for the poor. The American Catholic Church needs to embrace a preferential option for the survivors of sexual abuse.[...]Second, we need a better system for investigating accusations of sexual abuse. Obviously, all accusations must be reported to the police, but if the statute of limitations precludes prosecution, the police will not investigate. Or the prosecutor may judge there is insufficient evidence to prosecute. Under these circumstances, the church still has an obligation to investigate and determine whether a priest is guilty or innocent, whether he must be permanently removed from ministry or returned to ministry. The charter calls for an investigation of the allegations, but there is no standard operating procedure.

That became painfully clear in February 2011, when a Philadelphia grand jury found substantial evidence that thirty-seven priests -- all in active ministry at the time -- had abused. As the chair of the archdiocesan review board wrote in Commonweal:

The board had reviewed just ten cases involving the thirty-seven priests. None of the evidence we saw concerning the ten led us to conclude they had sexually abused minors. But until the grand-jury report came out, the board was under the impression that we were reviewing every abuse allegation received by the archdiocese. Instead, we had been advised only about allegations previously determined by archdiocesan officials to have involved the sexual abuse of a minora determination we had been under the impression was ours to make.

Just a few months later, it came to light that in May 2010 the principal of a Catholic elementary school had warned the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph that a priest fit the profile of a child predator. Yet six months passed before the diocese took action against the priest. Fr. Shawn Ratigan was eventually arrested on three counts of possessing child pornography. Bishop Finn and the diocese stand charged with filing to report suspected child abuse, a misdemeanor crime. And now prosecutors want to add another charge against Finn and the diocese. (Read our coverage of the story here.) Somehow the diocesan review board never never saw the case.As I wrote at Religion Dispatches last June, those developments weren't terribly surprising:

In October 2005just three years after the bishops adopted their new normsthe Archdiocese of Chicagos review board recommended removing an accused priest, Daniel McCormack, from ministry, and Cardinal Francis George refused to do so. He wasnt removed from ministry until January 2006, and McCormack later pled guilty to abusing five kids. As the victims attorney Marc Pearlman told NPR, I just dont know how many kids were abused between the fall of 2005 and January of 2006, when he was finally removed.[...]The reason the U.S. bishops adopted rules requiring dioceses to have review boards is that bishops couldnt be trusted to handle the problem on their own. Yet the Charter [for the Protection of Children and Young People] simply mandates that dioceses establish review boards; it doesnt say how they should work. And, as the egregious lapses in Philadelphia and elsewhere show, its not clear that they are working.

In that piece, I recommended three steps the bishops could take to shore up their sexual-abuse policies: First, improve communication. "Diocesan review boards are sometimes in touch with the National Review Board, which oversees the implementation of the Charter. But there is very little information sharing between local review boards. Why not hold an annual meeting of diocesan review board chairs...where participants could share best practices?" Bishops also need to keep in touch with their review boards. Lots do, but not all.Second, standardize review-board procedures:

Not all review boards are created equal. In Philadelphia, for example, review board members were pressured to judge allegations according to the norms of canon law. In one case, a canon lawyer who attended board meetings claimed that because an alleged act of abuse was committed against a 17-year-old in 1995, the allegation should be thrown out. At the time of the alleged abuse, the canonist argued, canon law held that the age of majority was sixteen. But review boards were not established to serve a canon-law function. Their role is simply to determine whether there is good reason to believe an alleged act of abuse took place against a minor.[...]Review-board members arent always clear on what amounts to sexual abuse. Does plying a minor with alcohol count? What about inappropriate tickling? The Charter sets the standard as an offense by a cleric against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue with a minorthe one about adultery. That definition is vague enough to allow review boards to recommend actions against priests for a range of abusive acts, but its also too idiosyncratic to be of much use to review boards. They need more guidance.

Third, require every abuse allegation to be forwarded to the review board -- immediately:

In many dioceses, such as Brooklyn, every allegation goes to the review board. In Philadelphia, however, someone with the archdiocese had been pre-screening accusations, deciding which were worthy of the review boards consideration and which were not. And in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the diocese never bothered to inform the review board that it had received the letter warning about Fr. Ratigan. When a bishop or one of his employees or priests is deciding which allegations ought to go to the review board and which he doesnt need to share, then he is undermining the purpose of the board. The USCCB should petition the Vatican to enact such a requirement in canon law.

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in June 2011, the Charter was up for discussion. The bishops could have changed the Charter to address the weaknesses made all too apparent in the months leading up to their meeting. Instead, they punted. Catholic News Service reported that the bishops had approved "extensive" changes to the Charter, but that wasn't the case. The bishops just revised the document to conform to newly released Vatican norms holding that the possession of child pornography and the sexual abuse of adults with mental disabilities are no different from abusing a minor. They also approved a revision obliging bishops to report allegations against bishops both to civil authorities and to the papal nuncio. It was as though they'd completely missed months of coverage showing the gaping holes in the Charter.Should we have expected another outcome? Back to Reese:

It is a disgrace that only one bishop (Cardinal Law) resigned because of his failure to deal with the sexual abuse crisis. The church would be in a much better place today if 30 or more bishops had stood up, acknowledged their mistakes, taken full responsibility, apologized and resigned. A shepherd is supposed to lay down his life for his sheep; these men were unwilling to lay down their croziers for the good of the church.[...]

The problem in the Catholic Church today is that the hierarchy has so focused on obedience and control that it has lost its ability to be a self-correcting institution. Creative theologians are attacked, sisters are investigated, Catholic publications are censored and loyalty is the most important virtue. These actions are defended by the hierarchy because of fears of scandalizing the faithful, when in fact it is the hierarchy who have scandalized the faithful.

***

Here's the complete text of Reese's remarks:

When Tom Plante and Kathleen McChesney asked me to give this keynote address, I said yes because it is hard to say no to Kathleen and Tom. It is also hard to say no when asked to do anything that might help push the church toward a better response to the sexual abuse of children. On the other hand, when it began to sink in that the people at the conference were going to be Americas leading experts on this crisis, I began to get very nervous.I am not an expert on the crisis, but rather a journalist, commentator and priest. Perhaps my contribution can be first to congratulate and thank Kathleen and Tom and all of the contributors to the book, Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis 2002-2012 (Praeger, 2012). The book makes a genuine contribution to a better understanding of the crisis. The church should be very grateful for your work.For the rest of my talk, I would like to concentrate on what I think is the unfinished work of responding to the sexual abuse crisis. Needless to say, I cannot list all of the unfinished work, but the items I will highlight strike me as being important.First, I think the churchand by church I mean both the clergy and the people of Godneeds to re-envision its attitude toward the survivors of sexual abuse. In Latin America, liberation theologians developed the concept of the preferential option for the poor. The American Catholic Church needs to embrace a preferential option for the survivors of sexual abuse.Nor should we look at the victims of abuse simply as clients or problems to be dealt with. Just as people in the church have learned not to look on the poor as a problem to be solved, but to recognize their contribution to the church, so too we need to see the survivors of abuse as persons who can teach us what it means to be Christians, what it means to be church. No one who listens to their stories can fail to be touched by them.This means that we cannot respond to every new victim who comes forward with O God, not another one. Rather we have to see them as integral to our community, persons who must be welcomed. Such an attitude would encourage the church to reach out to the thousands of victims of sexual abuse who have not come forward. We want them to come forward; the church needs them.Second, we need a better system for investigating accusations of sexual abuse. Obviously, all accusations must be reported to the police, but if the statute of limitations precludes prosecution, the police will not investigate. Or the prosecutor may judge there is insufficient evidence to prosecute. Under these circumstances, the church still has an obligation to investigate and determine whether a priest is guilty or innocent, whether he must be permanently removed from ministry or returned to ministry.The charter calls for an investigation of the allegations, but there is no standard operating procedure. Each diocese is on its own, with the result that some do better than others. The American criminal justice system sometimes fails even though it has police, prosecutors, grand juries, judges and juries. The church has not had anything like this since the inquisition. Not surprisingly, the church has a hard time getting this right.It is essential that the church get this right. The victims deserve justice and children must be protected from future abuse. Innocent priests also deserve justice and a way to clear their names. And the process must have credibility to the public at large.We need more research on this topic. We need to find out what are best practices and help dioceses to adopt them. We dont even know how many priests are suspended or how long their suspensions last. Many priests fear that if they are falsely accused they will be suspended indefinitely because the bishop is afraid to return them to ministry.In too many instances the investigative process appears suspect because it is under the control of the bishop. Episcopal credibility here is nil. The process will only have credibility to the extent that it is seen as truly independent of the bishop. Only an independent process will have the credibility to say that, Yes, this priest can return to ministry.Third, we still do not have a system for bringing bishops to account. It is a disgrace that only one bishop (Cardinal Law) resigned because of his failure to deal with the sexual abuse crisis. The church would be in a much better place today if 30 or more bishops had stood up, acknowledged their mistakes, taken full responsibility, apologized and resigned. A shepherd is supposed to lay down his life for his sheep; these men were unwilling to lay down their croziers for the good of the church.The bishops also have to step up and supervise their own. I know, only the pope can judge a bishop under canon law, but there are lots of things the bishops can do anyway. First, they must speak out and publicly criticize those bishops that are not observing the charter or are failing in their responsibilities. Bishops, including the president of the bishops conference, need to say, Shame on you bishop, get your house in order. This is not a canonical judgment; this is fraternal correction.The Vatican also needs to do its job. It appears to have no problem investigating nuns and theologians, but investigating mismanagement by a bishop is not a priority. A bishop can be quickly removed in Australia for hinting that women and married priests might need to be discussed, but bishops who failed children are not removed. Only in Ireland were a few bishops removed because of their failure to protect children, and that took a brave archbishop and the full force of the Prime Minister and the government.Even when a bishop is indicted, no one has the sense to tell him to take a leave of absence until the case is over.Finally, the sexual abuse crisis has to be seen in the context of clerical culture in the church. I agree with those who say that celibacy did not cause the sexual abuse crisis, but when a group of men sit around a table discussing what to do with one of their colleagues who abused a child, it makes a big difference whether the men at the table have children. The first question in a parents mind is How would I feel if my child was abused? The inability of celibate men to ask that question blinded them to the consequences of their decisions. They focused on the priest, not the victim.A culture of fear and dependency also contributed to the crisis. I dont know whether Monsignor Lynn broke the laws of Pennsylvania, but he was certainly no hero. Too few priests stood up to those in authority and said, No, you cant do that. Speaking truth to power is not welcomed in the Catholic Church. Diocesan priests are totally dependent on the good will of their bishop for assignments and promotions. If a 60 year old bishop is appointed to your diocese, he is going to be your boss for the next 15 years. In practice, there is no appealing his decisions toward you nor can you escape by moving to another diocese. You are stuck.In this corporate culture, few are going to tell the bishop no. The one pastor in Philadelphia, who refused to accept an abusive priest, got reprimanded and punished for challenging the archbishop. This is what happens when you speak truth to power in the Catholic Church.The problem in the Catholic Church today is that the hierarchy has so focused on obedience and control that it has lost its ability to be a self-correcting institution. Creative theologians are attacked, sisters are investigated, Catholic publications are censored and loyalty is the most important virtue. These actions are defended by the hierarchy because of fears of scandalizing the faithful, when in fact it is the hierarchy who have scandalized the faithful.Is there any hope. The data in the John Jay report shows that the cases of abuse fell dramatically during the 1980s. The problem of abuse is probably worse in other parts of American society than it is in the church, but that is still damning with faint praise. It can never be an excuse for doing less than is required. But I dream of the day when the church becomes part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We are not there yet. But hopefully someday what we learn about the detection, prevention and healing of abuse in the church may be of help in responding to abuse in American society.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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